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Again, my apologies. The end of the quarter has besieged me with grading. And so grading, not blogging, has taken precedence in my life. But, finally, today, we arrive at the last of the 5 yamas, or restraints, of the eight limbs of yoga: brahmacharya.

This particular restraint strikes fear in the heart of many Westerners, for it is often translated as “celibacy.” And for most us, being celibate is not how we want to live our lives. My teachers in India were very careful to remind us that brahmacharya has a broader meaning than simply “no sex.” It can be interpreted as “the conduct that leads to Brahman or as the control of the senses” (I’m getting this quote from my teaching training manual from India). Conduct that leads to Brahman means, in essence, conduct that will connect us with the divine Source of creative energy. In terms of controlling the sense, the practice of brahmacharya can help make sure we aren’t just leaking our energy all over the place (it’s my understanding that the prohibition against sex came from the notion that, for men, sex necessitates a–how should I put this–leaking of vital life energy that could be put to “better” use via meditation or yoga).

Let’s face it: we waste a lot of our energy. Okay, I waste a lot of my energy on worrying, indulging my fear and anger, and getting caught in the cycle of attachment and aversion (either I want or I don’t want). Brahmacharya, like aparigraha, can help us reign in this wastefulness and focus on what’s important: compassion, the breath, our interconnectedness with one another, etc.

Here’s another way I like to look at brahmacharya: sex, like meditation and yoga, can transcend the barriers of mediated existence, overcoming the boundaries of physical form and unite us–unite us to our Self, unite us to our Creator, and unite us to one another. If anything, the practice of brahmacharya reminds us of the potency of sexual intimacy and cautions us to cultivate this power in safe ways by honoring our commitment to our partner and recognizing the sanctity inherent in them.

Next up? The niyamas, or observances.



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Asteya and Aparigraha

As a reminder, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Damn good, I might add. Gentle Reader, I offer my manifold apologies for being away from my blog for so long and for undoubtedly leaving you in an incurable state of suspense about the next yama on our list. Well, I’m kicking myself for undertaking this project of blogging about the 8 limbs of yoga because I’m finding that there are all these other things I’d also like to blog about (like how irate last week’s NY Times magazine cover story made me–if ONLY teaching was as simply as standing still when you give instructions, if only).

But a promise is a promise. What I might do is break things up a bit. Blog about a limb of yoga and then blog about something else.

Today I’m combining asteya and aparigraha, two yamas that are deeply intertwined (much like satya and ahimsa). Asteya is essentially non-stealing or restraint from taking what isn’t yours. My teachers in India reminded us that this applies to physical things as well as mental things. We don’t want to try to steal someone else’s happiness and we want to respect where others are coming from.

Similarly, aparigraha is restraint from wanting or lack of greed. Living a minimalist lifestyle can help cultivate aparigraha. Again, my teachers in India reminded us that we should be mindful of what is truly useful to us (literally and figuratively) and discard the rest. With possessions, this seems obvious. Why, no, now that I think of it, I don’t actually need both SUVs. With thoughts and emotions, this seems much less obvious. Our self-doubt doesn’t really serve us, so why do we let it linger? Our tacit judgment of those around us does little to deepen our spiritual practice, so why do we continue to judge? (I know for me judging others makes me feel “safe”–of course, it’s a false sense of safety, but there it is nevertheless. Same holds true of the self-doubt. It provides safety because I can trust that it will always be there.)

Again, bearing witness to what goes on in our head is the key here. When we see those thoughts or beliefs that hinder us on the path, we must let them go and unburden ourselves. How do we do this? I don’t really know. Sometimes, I talk to myself as if I’m talking myself out of a fitful tree. Writing helps, too. And, interestingly, sometimes reading saves me. If I read something of a spiritual or mental health bent, the words on the page will give me pause and I’ll remind myself, “Oh, yes, asteya and aparigraha–wanting what others have or wanting way beyond my needs isn’t going to serve me.” And somehow, deep inside me, I trust that.


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Continuing our exploration of the yamas–the “restraints” of the 8 limbs of yoga–we come to satya, truth-telling or restraint from lying (here, I’d like to give a shout-out to my former soccer teammate of the same name). In the quest to quiet the volatile thought waves in the mind, we can ease some of that volatility by simply speaking the truth.

But sometimes the truth hurts and in practicing satya, we must also practice ahimsa. We need to tell the truth without causing harm. My teachers in India suggested that we can balance satya and ahimsa by telling “white lies.” For example, if someone you love is on their way to a job interview and they are wearing something that isn’t particularly flattering, instead of saying “you look ridiculous [or “fat” or “ugly” or “awful” or other harming word],” we could say, “you look really great in this other outfit. Perhaps you should wear it instead? It’s important to look your best.” You have still communicated to your loved one that their attire just isn’t working for them, but without issuing an insult.

Emily Dickinson, the Eccentric Recluse, conveys this sentiment much better than I do:

“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–

Success in circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind–“

(c. 1868)

This poem is so rich–there’s much to say about it. I want to highlight two points. First, Dickinson underscores the idea of telling the truth gently, “with explanation kind” (think of our aforementioned loved one in the unflattering outfit). Second–and perhaps more interestingly–Dickinson suggests that the Truth lies in the process, in context (or, successfully telling the truth exists when we tell it “in circuit”). To me, this is could be read as an indictment of absolute truth and/or as a celebration of the role context plays in creating meaning (think Derrida).

I think about satya and ahimsa when it comes to our emotions, especially anger. Our emotions feel true. When we’re sad or devastated, that grief feels truer than anything else at that moment. Same with anger or euphoria–nothing feels truer in those moments of intense emotion than the feelings themselves. But feelings are, on the one hand an extension of our mind and our ego, and, on the other hand, merely a pools of energy collecting in certain areas of our body.

I’m a big fan of my feelings, so this is hard for me. Wade past the feelings (without ignoring or repressing them) to get to the truth. Maybe the truth isn’t that you’re sad or you’re angry, maybe the truth is that something happened and you responded from a place of pain. I don’t think the truth blames or makes excuses. It just is.

As long as I’m quoting 19th century American writers, I’ll include a fitting quote from (my all-time favorite) Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“But speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits will help you with unexpected furtherance” (Divinity School Address).

I could end there. And really I should. But I just want to add that when we speak the truth in our lives–when we come from the heart of the matter–there’s always support. Perhaps the support doesn’t always appear in way we expect to, but it’s there. So speak up, speak out, and speak often.

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Last time I posted, I discussed the 8 limbs of Ashtanga yoga and expressed an interest in blogging about each limb in more detail. The first limb is made up of the yamas, or 5 “restraints.” These practices are called restraints because they call upon us to “restrain” from certain behaviors or mindsets.

The first of these restraints, or yamas, is ahimsa. Ahimsa is usually translated as “non-harming” or “non-violence.” In other words, it’s the practice of restraining from creating or doing harm. Rightfully so, ahimsa conjures up images of Gandhi or MLK and their social movements of non-violence. And yet, ahimsa doesn’t need a national stage of institutional bigotry upon which to play out. There lots of “little ways” to restrain from harm, and these  little ways add up.

One way to practice ahimsa is by being a vegetarian. It’s my understanding that much of the justification for a vegetarian diet in yoga comes from this yama. Eating animals creates harm; whereas, (the theory goes) eating plant matter, fruit, nuts, and even animal products (like ghee, yogurt, milk, cheese, etc) creates significantly less harm than eating flesh. So, you don’t have to be a Dr. King to practice non-violence; you can be a vegetarian. If it hasn’t happened already, food will become one of the global “human” rights causes of our time (next to women’s rights).

Ahimsa, though, isn’t just about outward harm. We don’t just do violence externally to a group of people different than us or to a cow that we want to turn into a hamburger. We create and inflict violence internally, too. And by that I mean, we inflict violence on ourselves and on others without even raising our finger or opening our mouth. We can create and inflict harm with our very thoughts.

So, it’s fitting then that first step on the yogic path is ahimsa, the practice of restraining from harm, because yoga, at its core, is mastery of the mind. Yoga is the cessation of fluctuation of the thought-waves in the mind. It is learning how to use our breath, our body, our non-mind self (or “soul”), and, yes, even our mind, to quell the stormy sea of our rational monkey mind. Why not, then, begin this process by practicing restraint from harming thoughts? What better way to embark on the yogic path than to jump right in like this–jump right in to the place where most of our damage is created: in our own heads.

What does it mean to harm ourselves or others with our thoughts? We create violence every time we roll our eyes at our boss and think “what an airhead; I can’t believe I’m supposed to do what this guy says.” We create violence every time we tell ourselves that we were sorely wronged by that jerk who cut us off in traffic. We create violence every time we sit in silent judgment in our heads of something our lover or family member has said or done. If I’m remembering my New Testament correctly, I believe Jesus says as much when he tells his disciples that the man who thinks about murdering someone is no different from the man who actually does murder someone.

And we also create harm with the things we think about ourselves. I’ve been really sick the past several days (some kind of cold that took a turn for the worse and became an infection–long story), and, as a result of being run-down and riddled with infection, I’ve felt very disconnected from my body and not mentally sharp enough to do some of the things I love. In this state, it’s easy for me to turn against myself. My mind starts to say things about how lousy I am and I start to believe it. Violence in the first degree!

As we journey on the yogic path, we must learn to observe our thoughts before we can quiet them. If you think about it, it’s really not that hard to restrain from eating meat or to restrain from externally doing harm to people in obviously violent ways, but it’s profoundly challenging to restrain from harming thoughts. I do think the first step in truly practicing ahimsa is to catch our thoughts and notice their harming quality.

But what we do after that, I’m not quite sure.

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